He didn’t say his most famous sentence that way: Life will punish those who come too late. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and the first guarantor of a new European peace order, was ahead of his time. And then – like the Soviet Union – was overtaken by the passage of time.

He wanted to create socialism with a human face – a futile attempt to rescue the huge, run-down empire dictated by the Kremlin. His policy of change left Eastern Europe freedom – and Germany unity in peace. Without Gorbi, as he was affectionately called, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin would not be open to the world today.

Yes, a person can change the world – because they inspire people to take their world into their own hands, to think about it anew. Gorbachev, the late Nobel Peace Prize winner, made the impossible possible and stands alongside legends such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. His legacy was one of active omission: He brought the Cold War to a peaceful end. The momentum of the story came because the people in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and then also the GDR took to the streets for freedom and democracy – and at least hoped that this time they would not be crushed by Soviet tanks. A gamble resulted in a miracle, man-made.

“I think dangers only await those who don’t react to life.” That was actually the legendary sentence by Mikhail Gorbachev, spoken in Berlin on the 40th anniversary of the GDR. A final salute to the GDR leadership, which was also aging on the inside, and still believed that they could suppress their people’s urge for freedom or shoot them down at the border. A good month later the Wall fell and people hugged each other while shouting “Gorbi”.

The GDR was history. And also the Soviet Union – which arrived later in Moscow, but then with full force. To this day, Russia has not recovered from this force, also because under Vladimir Putin it fell back into the old imperialism and the centuries-long oppression of people who thought and acted independently. Modern-day Russia invaded peace-loving, democratic Ukraine and broke away from Gorbachev – because it still wants to be a kind of Soviet Union.

The truth about Gorbachev, who is revered in Germany, is that he didn’t want the blocs to disintegrate either, but rather to save the encrusted Soviet empire through modernization and to keep it together – including with violence in the Baltic States. The armament of the USA had plunged Moscow into financial worries, as had the inefficient planned economy. At the same time, the massive freedom movements, especially in Poland, cornered the rulers of the socialist dictatorships. Gorbachev was the first to break down the structures in order to keep the Communist Party in power. In return, he even had Stalinist crimes publicly discussed. He still wanted to win people over to socialism by thinking about it. But even without thinking, many in Central and Eastern Europe preferred freedom.

To this day, the Kremlin cannot deal with the desire for humanity aroused by Gorbachev. Because Ukraine itself wants to live, it should be destroyed. Above all, this shows us Germans how fragile the post-Cold War peace order in Europe is if we are unable to defend it. And how lucky we were to get German unity through with Gorbachev and the victorious powers of the Second World War before Gorbachev was overthrown from the world stage in his own country.

The open Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and a Europe that lives almost completely in freedom – this remains Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy after his death. He showed us: yes, one person can change the world – for the better.